I received this press release from the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a group that grew out of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (or CSICOP). I receive these kinds of things daily from groups hoping I will publicize their causes. In this case, I decided to comply.
Center for Inquiry Calls Vatican’s Position on Biomedical Technology Deplorable and Scientifically Insupportable
Amherst, New York (December 12, 2008)—In a move designed to firm up faith-based opposition to embryonic stem cell research and other cutting-edge biomedical technologies, the Vatican has released a 32-page document titled “Dignitas Personae” â€“ meaning “the dignity of a person.” The document condemns a host of procedures considered “immoral” by the Catholic Church, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), the freezing of unfertilized eggs, embryonic stem cell research, and the testing of embryos to help identify those with defects. The Center for Inquiry, a think tank headquartered in Amherst, New York that supports research on bioethical questions, deplores the Vatican’s pronouncement. The Vatican’s position has no justification other than religious doctrine, according to the Center for Inquiry, and may have a serious adverse effect on scientific research and the development of medical therapies.
“I regret the renewed effort by the Vatican to censor—indeed prohibit—research in reproductive science,” said Paul Kurtz, chairman and founder of the Center for Inquiry. “Do we have to wage the Galileo battle again? The Vatican claims that their objections are “moral,” but they are based on a theological doctrine that a formless fertilized egg is a full human being, a position which most scientists reject.” Kurtz says there is a need to defend freedom of scientific research and the positive good that can ensue for countless numbers of infertile couples. “The effort to curtail stem cell research is especially disturbing in the view of the possible beneficent results for improving human health,” he said.
The Vatican has focused on commonplace scientific technologies used in the United States and elsewhere, which the Church believes demean human “dignity,” and bring humans perilously close to “playing God.” The Church continues to hold steadfast to its key theological proclamation that “life begins at conception,” thereby rendering as “illicit” the use of embryos or fertilized eggs in research or otherwise, including IVF for married Catholic couples wishing to conceive.
Dr. Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry (and author of the book Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas) said that “the Vatican has once again manifested its regrettable preference for religious doctrine over science. Until roughly fourteen days after conception, one cannot even meaningfully refer to the embryo as an individual, let alone the equivalent of an adult human, since both twinning and fusion are possible until that point.” Lindsay added that the Vaticanâ€™s rejection of IVF on the ground that it results in the discarding of embryos is especially ironic since from 60 to 80 percent of embryos conceived “naturally” are spontaneously aborted. “If the Vatican wants to prevent embryos from ‘dying,’ then they will have to instruct couples to avoid sex completely.”
“The bottom line,” says Lindsay, “is that the Vatican is telling those who need medical assistance to seek help from theology, not therapy.”
The Center for Inquiry/Transnational is a nonprofit, educational, advocacy, and scientific-research think tank based in Amherst, New York. Their research and educational projects focus on three broad areas: religion, ethics, and society; paranormal and fringe-science claims; and medicine and health. The Center’s Web site is www.centerforinquiry.net .
The Vatican paper may be found here.
This, as we all know, is an extraordinarily touchy subject, and I should know better than to try and tackle it. I want to be very careful to make one central point: that this press release is a poor, even false in part, and error-filled argument against the Catholic Church’s position on human dignity. I am not arguing that CFI’s underlying position is wrong, however; nor am I arguing it is right. That is, I will not argue, nor claim support, for any side in the questions to which the press release and Vatican document address.
I hope not to get into those discussions, either. That is, I hope we can stick to how to and how not to argue a point, and that we do not attempt (at this time) to argue for or against the points in question. Let’s keep this friendly.
Paul Kurtz, who founded or co-founded both CSICOP and CFI, is a philosopher and so should know better than to have issued this press release. Let’s go point by point to see why.
“The [Vatican] document condemns a host of procedures considered ‘immoral’ by the Catholic Church…” Note the scare quotes around the word immoral, the use of which, says the late philosopher David Stove, serve to negate the word so that it doesn’t mean immoral, but believed by so and so to be immoral. Like it or not, the debate on the central questions are moral ones; they cannot be any but. So to say ‘immoral’ in the way the press release did serves to limit the usefulness of a word that is necessary for CFI to use. This is because, as we shall see, the sole argument that CFI has against the Vatican position is that “it is too moral!”
There is nothing wrong with this argument. The Vatican is claiming immorality, and there is nothing wrong with the counter that it is too moral to allow “vitro fertilization (IVF), the freezing of unfertilized eggs, embryonic stem cell research, and the testing of embryos to help identify those with defects.”
Thus, when CFI whines that, “The Vatican’s position has no justification other than religious doctrine”, this is logically equivalent to saying “The Vatican’s position is a moral one based on its central beliefs and tenets.” And is thus a poor attempt of CFI trying to disallow the Vatican’s use of morality in argumentation.
Kurtz then says the Vatican’s position, “may have a serious adverse effect on scientific research and the development of medical therapies.” Very true, but this is nothing more than a restatement of the Vatican’s original position: that these activities are immoral, and since they immoral, they should be proscribed.
Kurtz again: “Do we have to wage the Galileo battle again?” Given that Kurtz has fairly picked a reasonable comparison, which he has not1, his question implies what is false: that there is some factual truth which the Vatican is failing to acknowledge. A reading of the Vatican document shows they know well the medical facts. They are not arguing against the facts, just saying that employing certain behavior related to these facts is immoral.
More Kurtz: “The Vatican claims that their objections are ‘moral,’ but they are based on a theological doctrine that a formless fertilized egg is a full human being, a position which most scientists reject.” He again uses scare quotes around moral, once more trying to remove a legitimate form of argument. He even calls the Vatican’s call to morality a “theological doctrine”, which is a true statement, but silly. Of course it is a theological argument! What else would it be?
Note Kurtz’s call to consensus, where he says “a position which most scientists reject”. Mr Kurtz, this is logically and factually equivalent to “a position which some scientists support”! Readers of this blog will recognize that Kurtz’s choice of words is far from a strong argument in his favor.
His next statement is his best, he finally says something about why he feels use of these medical procedures is moral, arguing “the positive good…for countless numbers of infertile couples…[and]…the possible beneficent results for improving human health.” To say that these procedures will be “good” is a moral statement, and to claim “possible beneficent results” is a factual one, open to observation, theory, and all the other tools available to research questions of these kind. If Kurtz would have stuck to observations like these, his would have made sense.
Next to weigh in is CFI’s Ronald Lindsay, who is obviously letting his emotions get the best of him when he says, “the Vatican has once again manifested its regrettable preference for religious doctrine over science.” The Vatican, of course, has no choice but to opt for religious doctrine in its arguments. This is its reason for existence!
Lindsay’s second mistake is falsely contrasting religious doctrine and “science”, as if there was a tangible thing, or group, called “science” to which we can defer, much as some defer to the Church on moral matters. There is no such thing as “science” in this sense.2 There are facts, theories, observations, and so on which do exist and which can be considered, consulted, interpreted, and used in good or bad order. Thus, Lindsay makes the same error as Kurtz did when he claims the Vatican is claiming certain true facts are false. The Vatican is doing no such thing. Who doubts the veracity or efficacy of in vitro fertilization, for example? No priest of bishop is making so absurd a claim.
After citing a little known and interesting medial fact, a form of argument to which he should have stuck, Lindsay moves to non sequiturs: “The Vaticanâ€™s rejection of IVF on the ground that it results in the discarding of embryos is especially ironic since from 60 to 80 percent of embryos conceived ‘naturally’ are spontaneously aborted.” I don’t know why he needs scare quotes around naturally, but it does not follow that the embryos lost, or the way in which they were lost, from IVF is morally equivalent to those that are lost, and the way they are lost, spontaneously. But he didn’t have to make this error because he was awfully close to a factual argument which he should have offered on the mechanisms and causes of spontaneous abortions and in what way, if any, these are or are not equivalent to those happening in patients receiving IVF.
Lindsay then says something utterly absurd: “If the Vatican wants to prevent embryos from ‘dying,’ then they will have to instruct couples to avoid sex completely.” This is nothing but childish petulance and should not found its way into a press release purporting to be the public face of a major organization. I also can’t help but picture a look of smug self-satisfaction on Lindsay’s face as he thought up this zinger. I might be doing a disservice to this great man by saying that, but I’d bet it will be a common emotion felt by many who read this press release.
Worked into a pique, Lindsay closes with another non sequitur: “the Vatican is telling those who need medical assistance to seek help from theology, not therapy.” I don’t even know what to say about this other than to remark that this kind of thing is what commonly passes for arguments in politics these days. It boils down to “I want my way because it’s my way!” That is, it is no better than that.
What is most striking is the Kurtz and Lindsay had a vast array of both factal and moral statements that they could have employed in their favor but did not. Kurtz and Lindsay are implicitly arguing that the Catholic Church’s position is immoral, and they should have said so. Instead, they chose to say nothing better than “We reject the Vatican’s arguments because they are religious.” Kurtz must know that this is a fallacious conclusion. It is no way follows that because a statement arises from religious or theological grounds it must be false or not moral.
All in all, a pretty bad press release.
1If all you know about Galileo and the Catholic Church is the usual folklore, what you know is probably mistaken. “The story of Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition in 1633 for teaching the Copernican system is often presented as a classic example of religion and science coming into conflict. But this story is also part myth and part fact. Historians now largely agree that Galileo was not tried for teaching heliocentrism but for disobeying a Church order.” Read the whole article, by Victor Stenger, a CSICOP fellow and CFI member, here. Also mandatory reading is a work Stenger cites: Mano Singham. “The Copernican Myths,” Physics Today (December 2007): 48-52. You know I love you, dear readers, but please do not comment on this particular topic unless you have read both of these articles. It will save us a great deal of time and unnecessary animosity.
2If there was, I suppose I would be one of its renegade priests.